On September 14, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who had served as State Counselor for four years, was sworn in as President of Singapore. You may not have heard of him, but he has served as deputy prime minister and finance minister for many years and is called the “economic czar” by foreign media. A survey seven years ago showed that nearly 70% of respondents believed that he was a suitable candidate to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
However, as an Indian, he does not expect a non-Chinese to serve as the real prime minister. He calls himself “not a forward, but always a central defender.” The 66-year-old resigned as State Counselor and Coordinating Minister for Social Policy in July this year, and then officially ran for president under the slogan of “mutual respect.” In the referendum on September 1, he defeated two Chinese opponents (Wong Kok Sung and Chen Qinliang) with a vote rate of 70.40%, becoming the ninth president of Singapore and the third Indian president in the Lion City.
In Singapore, which implements a parliamentary system, although the president is also a virtual head of state without executive power, he has certain real powers in specific areas such as using national foreign exchange reserves, appointing senior public sector positions, and approving anti-corruption investigations. As a directly elected president with a six-year term, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, as a senior within the system, can ensure the smooth succession of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and the preparation for the parliamentary election to be held in 2025 at the latest.
People directly elect a virtual head of state
On the surface, Singapore is a parliamentary country. The center of power lies with the prime minister and his cabinet, and the president is just a virtual head of state. However, the Singaporean presidency is far more important than imagined.
In his book “Thinking of Myself as a Method”, the famous scholar Xiang Biao likened Singapore to an “intermediary country” to highlight Singapore’s key role in connecting China and ASEAN, and the East and the West. At a time when the rift between China and the West is growing day by day, the communication and coordination role that Singapore can play is bound to increase. The President of Singapore is an important player representing Singapore on the international stage, and he does his part in this regard. Tharman Shanmugaratnam stated in his campaign manifesto that the world has entered a difficult period of tension and division, and he hopes to use his experience in international affairs to do something.
Tharman Shanmugaratnam not only has rich political experience in Singapore, but also has shown his talents on the international stage. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, an economist by training, is the first Asian to serve as chairman of the International Monetary and Financial Committee, the policy advisory body of the International Monetary Fund. Tharman Shanmugaratnam has also led international organizations such as the “G20 Global Financial Governance Expert Group” and the “30-member Group” composed of well-known figures in the international financial field. He currently also serves as co-chair of the Global Water Economics Commission. These rich resumes can enable it to play a more active role on the international stage.
Compared with ordinary parliamentary countries, the president of Singapore is not a simple symbolic role. He not only holds the “second key” to the country’s reserves, but also has veto power over some important personnel appointments. These real powers are an important difference between the President of Singapore and other heads of state in a parliamentary system. The reason why the President of Singapore has certain real power is of course inseparable from its specific way of formation.
In most parliamentary republics, such as Germany and India, the president is usually elected by the parliament. The President of Germany is elected by the Federal Assembly, which is composed of members of the Bundestag and an equal number of representatives elected by state parliamentary bodies based on proportional representation; the President of India is also elected by an electoral college composed of elected members of both houses of the Federal Assembly and the state assemblies. . This method of electing the president by voting by members can be called an indirect election.
Different from parliamentary countries, presidential or semi-presidential countries usually use direct elections to select the president (a counterexample is that the president of South Africa is indirectly elected), that is, the president is elected by ordinary voters, such as in Brazil and France. In certain periods in the past, the two different presidential election methods, direct election and indirect election, have become the main criteria for distinguishing parliamentary systems from (semi-) presidential systems: if the president is elected by a representative body, then the country’s political system is likely to be a parliamentary system; If the president is elected by popular vote, the regime is likely to be (semi-)presidential.
However, the development of real politics has gradually broken through the above framework, because some parliamentary countries have begun to try to change the presidential position to direct universal election, and Singapore is a typical example. Singapore revised its constitution in 1991, changing the method of selecting the president from indirect election to direct election, and also gave the president a certain range of veto power, making him no longer just a symbolic leader.
Singapore revised its constitution in 1991, changing the method of selecting the president from indirect election to direct election, and also gave the president a certain range of veto power, making him no longer just a symbolic leader.
From a global perspective, Singapore’s direct presidential election is unique among parliamentary countries, but it is not the only one. In addition to Singapore, the Czech Republic also changed its presidential election to a direct election. At the beginning of independence, the 1992 Czech Constitution stipulated that the president was elected by a joint meeting of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which was an indirect election. In 2012, the Czech Republic revised the presidential election method and stipulated that direct presidential elections would be implemented from the following year. The direct result of direct elections is that the elected president’s waistline will become harder. Zeman, the then president of the Czech Republic, was often accused of “overstepping his powers”, and his confidence in “overstepping his powers” undoubtedly came from the direct election method.
Singapore has a population of less than 6 million, and direct presidential election is not time-consuming or laborious. The change to direct election reflects the system designers’ hope that the democratically elected president will play a certain substantive role. If the president is elected by the parliament, he can only be the “seal” and “yes man” of the parliament. Direct election not only enhances the legitimacy of the president’s public opinion, but also allows him to better play a relatively independent role.
Have minimal real power
An important axiom of political science is that the way power is generated determines the way power is exercised. Therefore, converting indirect elections into direct elections will greatly enhance the public opinion base of the elected president. Otherwise, the president actually assumes the role of an agent of the parliament, and any exercise of his powers must be directed and controlled by the parliament.
In Singapore, Tharman Shanmugaratnam has been a popular politician and has achieved several victories in parliamentary elections, including gaining the largest vote advantage in the 2020 general election as a member of the People’s Action Party. However, he resigned from the party earlier this year under electoral rules and emphasized his independence during his campaign for president.
Allowing the president under the parliamentary system to play a specific independent role is also the motivation for Singapore to reform its presidential election method. During its first 25 years in power, the People’s Action Party’s focus has been on making government more effective rather than on limiting its power. However, as Singapore’s foreign exchange reserves increased rapidly, in 1984 Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew stated that his government was considering amending the constitution to ensure that foreign exchange reserves could only be used with the consent of the President and a special committee.
In addition to being the gatekeeper of the country’s “coffers”, the President of Singapore also holds several important real powers.
First, the president can oversee government budget and fiscal policy. After listening to the recommendations of the Presidential Advisory Council, the President can veto the government’s annual budget and other fiscal bills, government loan projects, etc.
Second, the president enjoys specific appointment and dismissal powers. The president can appoint or remove the prime minister, but must respect the majority opinion of the parliament; if the majority required to form a cabinet cannot be reached in the parliament, the president can dissolve the parliament at the request of the prime minister or based on his own judgment; the president can veto the appointment of certain important positions, such as Justices of the Supreme Court, Attorney General, Inspector General of Police, etc.
Of course, in order to prevent the president from abusing his power, the president must listen to the advice of the Presidential Advisory Council when exercising the above-mentioned financial veto power and personnel veto power. The Commission once consisted of six persons, two (including the Chairman) appointed by the President, two appointed by the Prime Minister, and two appointed by the Chief Justice and the Chairman of the Public Service Commission. If the President disregards the recommendation of the Presidential Advisory Council, then Congress can override the President’s veto with an absolute majority of 2/3.
The restrictions on the power of the democratically elected president also reflect the fear of system designers from a system crisis. Therefore, although the president has certain real powers, he cannot exercise them at will. Such power is equivalent to a kind of “custodial power” in nature.
After Tharman Shanmugaratnam was elected, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first expressed congratulations, and then Lee Hsien Loong pointed out that as the head of state, Tharman Shanmugaratnam will represent Singapore at home and abroad and exercise guardianship, including guardianship over the appointment of cabinet members and key officials. Lee Hsien Loong said: “As the head of state, the President must be a unifying figure that all Singaporeans can look up to and identify with. He must wisely exercise the guardianship granted to him by the Constitution and use his experience and independent judgment.” Such a statement, in fact, is It is a reaffirmation of the nature of the powers of the President of Singapore and an important reminder to the elected President.
Third, the president has the power to issue pardons and declare a national emergency. The president has the right to initiate constitutional amendment initiatives and also has the right to petition the Supreme Court for interpretation of the constitution. Under the Internal Security Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, the president can also suspend relevant government actions.
important symbolic function
In addition to the above-mentioned real powers, the President of Singapore also assumes important symbolic functions and plays a very real role.
First, the president’s hyperpartisan status makes him a symbol of national unity. Compared with parliamentary candidates, an important feature of Singapore’s presidential candidates is that they cannot have party affiliation. Tharman Shanmugaratnam has 22 years of political experience. Although he has quit the ruling party, as a senior politician, his past political life is deeply tied to the People’s Action Party. Therefore, Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s election is of far-reaching significance to the People’s Action Party, especially Against the backdrop of an earthquake of high-level corruption in the People’s Action Party. This presidential election vote is also seen as a referendum on the People’s Action Party and a pre-change poll. The election of Tharman Shanmugaratnam is of great significance to the People’s Action Party in maintaining national unity.
Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who has an MPA degree from Harvard and a resume as a State Counselor, his father is the “Father of Pathology in Singapore”, and his wife is a Japanese lawyer, was elected President of Singapore with a high vote. Isn’t it a symbol of meritocracy and pluralistic politics in the Lion City?
The second important symbolic role played by the president is in ethnic political balance. Singapore is a multi-ethnic country, consisting of several major ethnic groups such as Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that different ethnic groups are politically represented. In terms of “power sharing”, many countries have designed a collaborative democratic model, and Iraq is a typical example: the president is a Kurd, the prime minister is a Shia Muslim, the speaker of the speaker is a Sunni Muslim, and ministers and parliamentarians are basically organized according to ethnic groups. and denominational proportional distribution. Although Singapore’s model of collaborative democracy is not as obvious as that of Iraq, it still has the strategic consideration of integrating various ethnic groups. The last presidential election, that is, the presidential election in September 2017, was limited to Malays. This is also the first time that Singapore has reserved the position of president for a designated ethnic group to ensure that the president is from the Malay ethnic group.
Lee Hsien Loong said at the time that after the first President Yusof (a Malay ethnic minority), Singapore had not had a Malay president for a long time. If no candidate of this ethnic group was elected for a long time under the democratically elected system, his ethnic group would feel uneasy. and disappointed, so this time it will be left to the Malays. In the end, former Malay Speaker Halimah Yacob, as the only candidate to complete the nomination process, was automatically elected as the country’s eighth president. She is also Singapore’s first female president.
These strategic considerations about collaborative democracy are ultimately reflected in institutional design. The Singapore Parliament passed constitutional amendments to improve the democratically elected presidential mechanism and ensure that ethnic minorities have the opportunity to be elected president. After the constitutional amendment, if a representative of a certain ethnic group has not been elected president in five consecutive presidential elections (that is, within 30 years), then the sixth presidential election will only be open to people from that ethnic group to run. Such institutional arrangements ensure the political opportunities and representation of various ethnic groups, thereby conducive to the harmony and stability of the country.
Today, following the third president Dewan Nair and the sixth president Seraphan Nathan, the ninth president Tharman Shanmugaratnam is another Indian. In this way, Indians account for 1/3 of the presidential quota. The same proportion as Chinese. The three former Chinese presidents are Kim Wong Fai, Ong Teng Cheong (Singapore’s first democratically elected president) and Tan Keng Yam. Their ancestral home is Fujian. There were three places left, two for Malays and one for Dr. Benjamin Henry Shires, a Eurasian. He was the second president of Singapore and served for 10 years until his death.
Unlike half a century ago, Indians are now prominent in the political arena of many countries, such as British Prime Minister Sunak, US Vice President Kamala Harris, and the two US Republican presidential candidates Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley. , Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, the third largest party in Canada, are all of Indian origin. In some small countries with a large number of Indian immigrants, such as Mauritius, Seychelles, Fiji, Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and even Ireland and Portugal in Europe, there are or have been Indians in power.
Therefore, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who has an MPA degree from Harvard and a resume as a State Counselor, his father is the “Father of Pathology in Singapore”, and his wife is a Japanese lawyer, was elected President of Singapore with a high vote. Isn’t it a symbol of meritocracy and pluralistic politics in the Lion City? ?